It’s one of those words that you don’t even look up in the dictionary until you start going through it yourself. For those less traveled it may not even make sense that we would coin a special word for returning to your country after a time away. It’s confusing for family and friends who just call it “coming home.”
“You must be glad to be coming home!”
“Bet you can’t wait to get home.”
“It’s about time you came home.”
These are the sentences that either paralyze the typical Repat or cause them to throw up a little in their mouth. There is no good response.
“Going home” is packed tight with confusion and uncertainty. There is SO much excitement and SO much anxiety sharing the exact same space in your brain that it can be hard to get a grip on what is real.
So we believe the lies. In fact sometimes, we create them.
To be fair — this is no conspiracy against the “home” Goers. Last years repats are not crouched in the shadows, rubbing their bony fingers together and plotting against the newest batch. However, excitement and anxiety create a fertile ground for misunderstanding.
Maybe you’re packing up and not sure what to believe. Maybe you’re a Stayer saying “goodbye” (again). Maybe you’re just glad someone is finally coming home (it’s about time right?).
Regardless . . . there are some things you should consider . . .
Here are 7 lies that Repats often believe:
LIE #1: The Green Grass Lie
“It’ll all be better when I get on that airplane . . . ”
I get it. This expat stuff can be stressful — for some more than others. Crossing cultures, learning languages, eating mystery foods — it’s all an adventure on the front end but rarely stays that way forever. Ironically the cultural stuff usually isn’t the back breaker.
It’s the relationships.
The broken ones. The strained ones. The annoying ones.
The pool of people to connect with is generally shallower when you are away than it is when you are home and the opportunities to escape (at least in a healthy way) are harder to come by.
Regardless of whether your deepest challenges fit in the “cultural”, “relational” or “other” category, it is easy to believe that getting out is going to fix it all.
That’s seldom how it plays out for two reasons:
1. New issues are waiting for you on the other side of the airplane
2. Old issues can fly.
You’ll set yourself up for a huge crash if you’re putting all of your hope into escaping to Utopia. You’ll also leave bits of unresolved brokenness behind you. Those don’t go away because you do and they don’t stay behind you.
LIE #2. The Lie of No One Cares
This lie is born out of a surprising discovery that most expats get smacked in the face with on their first trip home (even if they’re only home for a couple of weeks).
We move our lives to a foreign land. Every day is filled with some new and maddening challenge/adventure. We bumble around like a blindfolded walrus tripping through the forest and somehow we figure out a way to navigate — but one thing is certain — we come away with stories.
And we can’t wait to tell them.
So the first time someone says “Ohh. You spent two years in China? How was that?” — we think they really want to know . . . in detail.
So we tell them . . .
. . . and it stings a little when we find out they were hoping we could sum up the whole experience in 20 seconds or less.
Or they reduce two years of our life to, “yeah that’s just like when we took a cruise to the Bahamas”.
Or they get excited because their doctor is from Japan.
Or they slap us on the back and say, “HA! Eat any dogs lately?!”
Or they don’t even ask at all.
It is especially shocking when the people we expected to be most interested (typically friends and family) are the least interested.
So it makes sense then, that the repats would feel like no one cares.
But that is a lie for two reasons:
1. Caring goes beyond frame of reference. People have an understanding about your host culture that may be restricted to what they have seen on the evening news — or a hometown stereotype — or a bad joke. They’re not going to be as connected as you are and to be fair — you don’t really care that much about their cruise. Let them off the hook. They may not even know the right questions to ask but that doesn’t mean they don’t care.
2. Everyone ≠ No one. Just because EVERYONE doesn’t want to hear your stories does not mean that NO ONE does. They are out there. They may not be the people you thought they would be — but they are there. Be patient. The listeners are worth the wait. When you find them — it is glorious.
“I’ve learned that you don’t go back . . . but you do go forward.”
I heard this a few weeks ago from a man who was packing up both literally and figuratively. He was in the final days of a decades long cross-cultural experience that has taken him to both Asia and the Middle East. It’s not the first time he has repatriated so he has the benefit of gleaning from his own wisdom.
Two things change when you go away from home.
You . . . and home.
Your world gets rocked when you see it from another one. Your perspectives are stretched. Your positions are challenged. Your understandings grow. It’s not uncommon for repats to feel like they are a completely different person than they were when they came in.
Here’s the kicker — moving away is not WHY you changed.
Try going to your high school reunion and finding someone who didn’t change. Had you never left you would still be a different person. You might be a different, different person but you would be different nonetheless. Your expat experience is just a part of the story of HOW you changed.
You’re going forward to a different place with different people . . . and you are different.
That’s a whole lot of different.
You’re in for a shock if you think you’re going back to the same.
4. The Lie of “These People”
“These people just don’t get it.”
“These people are so caught up in their own little world.”
It’s all too easy for the globetrotter to turn judgy when they reconnect with their homeland. Ironically it’s the same phenomenon that occurs when we cross cultures in the first place. We start dropping the “THEY” bomb (usually as soon as we land) on every situation that doesn’t make sense.
“THEY eat some weird stuff.”
“THEY drive like maniacs.”
“THEY have no respect for personal space.”
It’s hard sometimes, to see the trees for the forest so we lump THEM all together and we notice what THEY do that is different from US. The unstated insinuation, of course, is that OUR way is the right way and THEIR way is wrong. There are seminars to help you process the fallacy of this kind of thinking when you’re preparing to travel abroad — but it’s often a shock when we come back the other way. Who would have guessed that ALL of the people who used to be SO right would become SO wrong while we were away.
It took some time for me to realize that my time abroad (the first time) had not granted me total enlightenment. However, I did notice that people started gritting their teeth when I began EVERY SINGLE sentence with, “In China we . . . “
I could tell what they were thinking . . .
“This guy just doesn’t get it.”
“This guy is so caught up in his own little world.”
They were wrong about me (at least partially) — but I was wrong about them too.
Prepare to cut some slack.
Going home farewells can be harder than the leaving home ones. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not easy to leave home but there is generally a sense that you will see these people again. They are your people. This is your place. You’ll be back.
That’s not likely the case when you end your expat time. It’s hard to imagine investing the same amount of time and money in a trip back to your host country as you would to your home country. Even if you do you’re likely to discover that it changed even more dramatically and more quickly than home did.
There is a truth here. It will NEVER be EXACTLY the same — even if you make it back.
BUT (and this is a big but) don’t settle for the lie that you will NEVER see any of these people again.
Two things give hope here:
1. LIFERS are worth it: The investment that is. If you are saying goodbye to some Lifers (friends who will be friends regardless of time and distance) don’t settle for never again. You may need to rearrange your priorities but reconnection is worth spending your frequent flyer miles, saving your pocket change and skipping Disneyland. The return on that investment is outstanding.
2. Distance has been redefined: Global people use a different measuring stick. When I was growing up we MIGHT drive across town to see someone we hadn’t seen in awhile. Now if friends can make it to the same half of the country we’ll find a way to catch up. I’m amazed at how many random reconnections (along with some near misses) we’ve been able to have with people all around the planet. It’s exciting when it happens.
Never say never.
6. The Lie of Re-Becoming
There is a fear that many repatriates share. It goes something like this:
“I’m afraid that I will slip back into my old life and become who I was before I moved abroad.”
We fear that our broadened horizons will re-narrow. That we’ll settle back into the comforts and conveniences of home so much so that we’ll forget what it was like to live on the other side.
- That our political focus will be only local.
- That our worship will be painfully monocultural.
- That we will forget what genuine community looks like.
- That we will lose our grasp on world events.
- That our friends will only speak our language(s).
- That our neighbors will look, act and think like us.
- That we’ll start liking sad imitations of ethnic foods and forget what the “real thing” actually is.
We’re petrified that we’ll start laughing at the same old jokes, chasing the same old ambitions and settling into the same old values (maybe even prejudices) that living away has broken us out of.
I say fair enough. The fear is legitimate BUT to believe that there is no other option is to fall for a lie.
Settling comes naturally — so be unnatural.
- Watch international news.
- Befriend foreigners.
- Keep learning language.
- Enjoy people who push you, stretch you and disagree with you even when you don’t have to.
- Celebrate your host culture’s holidays.
- Travel every chance you get.
Most importantly — think it through. Sit down and spend some quality time contemplating the skills, the values and the experiences that are a part of your story because you lived abroad. Get creative. How are you going to hold on to those?
7. The Brown Grass Lie
For every impending Repat who can’t wait to get on the plane there is one who is dreading it.
There is no shortage of repatriation chatter. In an effort to be “truth tellers” and good processors we hone in on the painful parts. We find comfort in the other broken people.
It’s not a bad thing.
But when you’re packing up it can freak you out.
The stories are real.
People actually do break down in the cereal aisle. They get overwhelmed by their own language. They forget how to pay bills and stand in line and cross the street. They feel isolated in crowds and unnoticed at their own homecoming parties.
It’s all true.
But keep in mind — we only talk about the surprises. The shocks. The stuff we didn’t see coming. The best bits get overshadowed by the bumblings and we forget to write about the fact that even though we are different and so is home . . . it’s good to be there.
Repatriation is usually hard. But hard doesn’t mean NOT good.
Don’t buy the lie that repatriating can’t be good. It most certainly can.
How about you?
Been there? — Spread a little hope. Share your best Repat moments.
About to repatriate? — What are you afraid of? Looking forward to?
Welcoming someone home? — What’s your plan for doing it well?
Comment below and pass it on.